Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pleasure in 'Paradise'

After watching “Trouble in Paradise,” I’m more convinced than ever that Ernst Lubitsch was the first director to truly grasp the use of sound technology.

During the past year, I’ve watched “The Love Parade,” “The Smiling Lieutenant” and now “Trouble in Paradise,” and I’m amazed at how well all three films hold up today. Early sound technology limited camera movement, while screenplays featured lengthy dialogue, Lubitsch made these films fresh by camera choices within a static set that provided a visual wit that matched the dialogue. He also brought forth the charisma in his actors – for example, Maurice Chevalier displayed his devilish charm in the first two films mentioned above.

With “Trouble in Paradise,” Lubitsch coaxes top-notch performance from the entire cast and shows complete mastery of a drawing room romantic comedy that puts modern films to shame.   

The film begins with a wonderful montage that shows how creative Lubitsch was, setting up his plot with a combination of visual and verbal snippets. It might be confusing at first, but stick with it as it all is explained. In short, Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) meet in Italy. Both are thieves, and each is attracted to the other’s physical and professional attributes.

They end up traveling Europe together, but they begin to weary of the nomadic, thieving life. So they hatch one last plan to score big, and that is to swindle perfume company owner Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis, below left with Hopkins and Marshall). She’s careless with her belongings, money and suitors – the Major (Charles Ruggles) and Francois (Edward Everett Horton), neither of whom seem to make any headway with Madame Colet. 

When Gaston returns a misplaced and very expensive purse, Madame Colet is taken with him. But when he is taken with her, this invokes the wrath of Lily.

Lubitsch simply got everything right with this film. At a time when writers were grappling with screenplays that didn’t sound like stage plays, he could emphasize the wit of a script without the need for ongoing dialogue. His films may consist of mostly interiors, but he had a way of focusing on even the smallest movement within a scene that nonverbally told the story or elicited a laugh. And in this pre-code era, he found managed to convey sexy with a sly wink rather than an overt situation.

Watch the opening dinner sequence between Gaston and Lily (below) – priceless for its wordplay, and yet while the camera is mostly focused on the two of them at a table, Lubitsch manages to pick up small details to keep it visually fun. As the scene escalates, it’s clear the two are lusting for each other. Or later in the film, a seduction scene between Gaston and Madame Colet turns into a sequence of two rooms with a variety of entrances and exits by the two characters, wonderfully choreographed visually.

Lubitsch could not have asked for a better cast. Marshall is handsome, suave and at his charming best. Hopkins is fiery and magnetic, while the lovely Francis manages to be flirty, smart, flighty and seductive while maintaining an air of class – no small feat! Meanwhile, Horton and Ruggles hilariously try to woo Francis, both knowing that neither will win yet wearily trying their best, forging an unlikely camaraderie.

“Trouble in Paradise” was released in 1932, and in this pre-Code film the battle of the sexes is light and fluffy and surprisingly adult. It’s sparkling fun thanks to all involved, and I can’t wait to see more of Lubitsch from this early era. 


  1. Filmboy, I greatly enjoyed your excellent post on this excellent film. I saw the later films of Lubitsch first then the earlier ones you mention here afterwards. There's a volume in the Criterion Eclipse series that has several early Lubitsch musicals, and I just recently finished the last one. I absolutely agree with your assessment of how well the early Lubitsch films hold up today. (The only one I didn't much care for was "One Hour with You." Don't know why.)

    But "Trouble in Paradise" is definitely the best of the early sound films. You observed how he brought out the best in his actors, and I sure agree with you. Not only are Hopkins and Marshall superb here, but so is Kay Francis, an actress I really like but who seldom got roles that made use of her gifts. This may be my favorite performance by her. And Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton in the same movie--sublime! Nobody has ever been able to define the famed Lubitsch Touch, but whatever it was, it's unmistakable and unique, and these early sound films, especially this one, have it in abundance.

  2. Thank you, R.D. I need to buy that collection because I enjoy these films so much. I've only seen Kay Francis in a few things and found her delightful in this. I need to seek out more of her films as well. The Lubitsch touch is hard to define, but once you see his films, you understand what is meant by it.

  3. It's not as if I didn't appreciate Lubitsch before reading your article, but you've helped me understand why he gives me such a kick.